Apr 3, 2024 - World

Israel and U.S. deeply divided in meeting on key Rafah operation issues

Palestinians continue their daily lives under difficult conditions by taking refuge at Jerusalem school in Rafah, Gaza on April 01, 2024.

Palestinians who are taking refuge at Jerusalem school in Rafah, Gaza due to lack of space in tent camps on Apr. 01, 2024. Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu via Getty Images

The deep divides between the U.S. and Israel over Israel's planned operation in Rafah were evident in a virtual meeting between senior officials from both countries, three sources with direct knowledge of the meeting told Axios.

Why it matters: An operation in the city, where more than one million Palestinians are sheltering, has become one of the most contentious issues between the U.S. and Israel around the war in Gaza.

Driving the news: The 2.5-hour virtual meeting earlier this week took place after Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier canceled the meeting over the U.S. decision not to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and the release of all hostages held by Hamas.

  • White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken led the U.S. side in the talks. Netanyahu's confidants, Minister for Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer and national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, attended from Israel. Several other defense, policy and intelligence officials from both sides participated.
  • Two sources with direct knowledge of the meeting said it was businesslike and constructive, and despite their differences both sides held a serious discussion with an aim of reaching an understanding and not just talking past each other.

Behind the scenes: A significant portion of the meeting focused on how to evacuate more than 1 million Palestinians in the southern Gaza city.

  • The Biden administration reiterated its concern that a quick and unorganized evacuation would result in a humanitarian disaster.
  • Three sources with knowledge of the meeting said the Israeli side presented general ideas it had about the evacuation of civilians and said it could take at least four weeks — and maybe longer — to implement depending on the situation on the ground.
  • The U.S. side said it is an unrealistic estimate and told the Israelis they are underestimating the difficulty of the task, the sources said.

Friction point: The U.S. officials told the Israelis the humanitarian crisis in Gaza that has been deteriorating over the last five months doesn't create confidence in Israel's ability to conduct an efficient and orderly evacuation of civilians from Rafah, the sources said.

  • According to two sources, one of the U.S. representatives in the meeting said a planned and adequately thought ought evacuation could take up to four months. The Israelis rejected that claim.
  • "It is clear to everybody that we will have to find a middle ground here," one source said.
  • The White House didn't respond to a request for comment.

State of play: Sullivan warned the Israelis in the meeting that in the next few weeks the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) organization could issue a famine declaration for Gaza, two sources said.

  • The sources said Sullivan told the Israelis that if that happens it would be only the third such declaration in the 21st century. "Sullivan said it would be a bad for Israel and for the U.S.," one of the sources said.
  • According to two sources, the Israelis said they don't agree Gaza is on the verge of famine. They claimed the IDF has the best information about the situation in Gaza and said other estimates are based on false information.
  • One of the sources said the U.S. side told the Israelis they are the only ones in the world that claim Gaza isn't on the verge of famine.
  • The U.S. made clear it disagrees with the Israeli assessment, especially of the situation in northern Gaza, and stressed that denying the problem is not a good position for Israel to take, the source said.

Zoom in: Two sources with direct knowledge of the meeting said the U.S. also presented its initial ideas for an alternative approach to an Israeli military operation in Rafah.

  • The U.S. alternative, which was presented in broad terms, included isolating Rafah from the rest of the Gaza Strip, securing the Egypt-Gaza border, focusing on targeting senior Hamas commanders in the city and conducting intelligence-based raids, the two sources said.
  • The main message from the U.S. was that while Hamas needs to be defeated in Rafah, the IDF needs to operate more slowly and with lower intensity than it did in Gaza City and in Khan Younis, the sources said.

What they're saying: In a joint statement after the meeting, the parties said they agreed they share the objective to see Hamas defeated in Rafah.

  • "The U.S. side expressed its concerns with various courses of action in Rafah. The Israeli side agreed to take these concerns into account," the statement said.

What's next: The parties agreed there will be separate virtual meetings of four expert working groups in the next 10 days that will focus on different aspects of a possible Rafah operation: intelligence, operational plans, humanitarian aid solutions and how to secure the border between Egypt and Gaza.

  • After those working groups meet, another high level meeting will take place in person in Washington sometime in the next two weeks, the sources said.

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